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Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

President Trump has released his budget blueprint. From a big picture perspective, the size of government won’t change. He’s kicking the can down the road on entitlements, which is obviously disappointing for people who can add and subtract. He does cut some domestic programs, but taxpayers won’t reap the benefits since those savings will be spent elsewhere, mostly for a bigger Pentagon budget.

But I’m going to be optimistic today (the glass isn’t 9/10ths empty, it’s 1/10th full). Let’s look at the good parts of his budget.

First, some background. Redistribution is bad public policy since it simultaneously encourages inactivity and dependency among recipients and discourages activity and initiative by taxpayers.

That’s the standard argument against conventional handouts such as welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, EITC, and housing subsidies. The plethora of such programs in Washington is bad news for both taxpayers and poor people.

But there’s another type of redistribution that’s far worse, and that’s when politicians use the coercive power of government to take money from lower-income people in order to provide goodies for upper-income people.

This is why I am so unrelentingly hostile to programs like the Export-Import Bank, agriculture subsidies, so-called disaster relief, green-energy scams like Solyndra, and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies.

Indeed, I even developed a “Bleeding Heart Rule” back in 2012 to describe how such giveaways are morally reprehensible.

Now let’s add another program to the list.

The National Endowment of the Arts is a federal program that subsidizes art, with upper-income people reaping the vast majority of the benefits.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that President Trump is proposing to defund this elitist bureaucracy.

Before explaining why the program should be abolished, let’s look at the case for federal involvement. This is how the NEA describes its mission.

The National Endowment for the Arts is an independent federal agency that funds, promotes, and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.

That sounds noble. But are we really supposed to believe that our communities won’t have any creative capacity without some handouts from the federal government to museums and other politically connected organizations that primarily serve rich people?

And for those of us who have this old-fashioned notion that the federal government should be constrained by the Constitution, it’s also worth noting that art subsidies are not one of the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8.

Here is the pro-NEA argument from a column in the New York Times.

Sadly, it has become clear that the N.E.A. is, once again, under threat of being abolished… The N.E.A.’s budget is comparatively minuscule — $148 million last year, or 0.004 percent of the total federal budget — while the arts sector it supports employs millions of Americans and generates billions each year in revenue and tax dollars. …the N.E.A., founded in 1965, serves three critical functions: It promotes the arts; it distributes and stimulates funding; and it administers a program that minimizes the costs of insuring arts exhibitions through indemnity agreements backed by the government. …The grants, of course, receive the most attention, if not as much as they deserve. Thousands are distributed in all 50 states, reaching every congressional district, urban and rural, rich and poor. …They support live theater for schools; music, dance and jazz festivals; poetry and literary events; arts programs for war veterans; and, of course, museum exhibitions.

This actually makes my point. The NEA spends $148 million per year, which is just a tiny fraction of what is spent by the private sector.

In other words, we had museums, plays, music festivals, and art programs before the NEA was created and all of those activities will exist if the NEA is abolished.

All that will change is that politicians and bureaucrats won’t be doling out special grants to select institutions and insiders that have figured out how the manipulate the system.

The column also has some absurd hyperbole.

I fear that this current call to abolish the N.E.A. is the beginning of a new assault on artistic activity. Arts and cultural programming challenges, provokes and entertains; it enhances our lives. Eliminating the N.E.A. would in essence eliminate investment by the American government in the curiosity and intelligence of its citizens.

The author actually wants readers to conclude that a failure to subsidize is somehow akin to an assault on artistic creativity. Oh, and don’t forget that our curiosity and intelligence somehow will suffer.

Here’s a story about an interest group that wants to keep the gravy train on the tracks.

The heads of five Boston arts museums are pushing back against feared Trump administration cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The museums’ directors say in an open letter that the agencies…help foster knowledge of the arts, create cultural exchanges, generate jobs and tourism, and educate young people. They say NEA and NEH funding has been instrumental at each of the Boston museums.

My immediate reaction is that there are lots of rich people and well-heeled companies in Boston. Surely NEA handouts can be replaced if these museum directors are remotely competent.

I’ll also take a wild guess that the directors of these five museums earn an average of more than $500,000 per year. Perhaps it’s not right for them to be using tax dollars to be part of the top 1 percent. Heck, trimming their own salaries might be an easy place for them to get some cost savings.

But enough from me. Let’s look at what some others have written about the NEA.  Let’s start with George Will’s assessment.

…attempting to abolish the NEA is a fight worth having, never mind the certain futility of the fight. …Government breeds advocacy groups that lobby it to do what it wants to do anyway — expand what it is doing. The myriad entities with financial interests in preserving the NEA cloyingly call themselves the “arts community,” a clever branding that other grasping factions should emulate… The “arts community” has its pitter-patter down pat. The rhetorical cotton candy — sugary, jargon-clotted arts gush — asserts that the arts nurture “civically valuable dispositions” and a sense of “community and connectedness.” And, of course, “diversity” and “self-esteem.” Americans supposedly suffer from a scarcity of both. …the NEA’s effects are regressive, funding programs that are…“generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier.” …Americans’ voluntary contributions to arts organizations (“arts/culture/humanities” institutions reaped $17 billion in 2015) dwarf the NEA’s subventions, which would be replaced if those who actually use the organizations — many of them supported by state- and local-government arts councils — are as enthusiastic about them as they claim to be. The idea that the arts will wither away if the NEA goes away is risible.

Now let’s hear from members of the “arts community” who understand that art doesn’t require handouts.

We’ll start with Patrick Courrielche, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the need to free the arts from federal dependence.

The NEA, created in 1965, has become politically tainted and ill-equipped to handle today’s challenges. Mr. Trump and Congress should ax it as soon as possible. …For the American arts to flourish—and for art to reach all Americans—artists must be able to make a living from their efforts.

And a theater director from Brooklyn explains in the Federalist why the art world will be better off without the NEA.

…as Trump prepares to spike the ball and end the game by axing the NEA, there is reason to be optimistic that this decision will be very good for the arts in America. …Arts institutions, which receive the bulwark of NEA funding, are failing badly at reaching new audiences, and losing ground. This is a direct result of the perverse market incentives our nonprofit arts system creates… As the artistic director of an unsubsidized theater company in New York City for more than a decade, I had to compete in a closed marketplace, where wealthy gatekeepers and the government rather than ticket sales pay the bills. …The industry receives more free money than it did a decade ago, and has fewer attendees. That is a broken system by any estimation. …Taking away free government money for the arts won’t make art disappear. After all, art is older than government. It will force artists and arts organizations to finally come to terms with their market realities. Audiences are better than experts at deciding what art is good or important. If a piece of art is so good that nobody to wants to pay for it, maybe it isn’t all that good. …In the American tradition, vaudeville, jazz, standup comedy, and many other art forms were created and grew within the free market, free from government assistance. Under this system there was a tremendous appetite for high art among Americans… President Trump is wise to get the government out of the art game, and all of us will be better off for his decision.

Here’s another artist, writing for PJ Media, about the benefits of ending federal handouts.

For over a decade as a theatre artist, my salary was made possible by taxpayers funding the arts. …In hindsight, and after much reflection and a better understanding of economics, I am truly sorry, and ask the taxpayer to forgive my thievery. However, spilled milk can’t be put back into the bottle. That doesn’t mean that we have to keep spilling the milk, though. It’s way past time to defund and shutter the National Endowment for the Arts. … The NEA and their supporters will trot out research about how many dollars are added to local economies due to things like theatres, symphonies, and museums. Of course, as almost every person with at least half a semester of Economics under their belt is screaming, the NEA’s argument embraces the broken window fallacy. The economic stimulus felt and supposedly generated by the arts community comes at the expense of other markets. …The National Endowment for the Arts model artificially props up mostly unwanted markets by using tax dollars that get funneled through inefficient and wasteful bureaucracies. …What it does to the arts is create a marketplace that supports bad art. …Don’t misunderstand, I love art. Like, a lot. And I’m willing to pay for it, as are many other patrons of the arts. If the National Endowment for the Arts were to be defunded and shuttered, it would help clear the deck of bad art that people aren’t willing to pay the real cost for. …art does enhance life, but having your life enhanced at the expense of others is not a right. People don’t have a right to other people’s money just so they can watch a play or visit a museum. …It’s time for the National Endowment for the Art to be defunded and shuttered.

Amen.

Since I started today’s column with optimism, I’ll be balanced and end with pessimism. I very much doubt that Congress will defund the NEA bureaucracy.

In part, this is a classic example of “public choice.” The recipients of the handouts have strong incentives to mobilize and lobby to keep their goodies. Taxpayers, by contrast, mostly will be disengaged because their share of the cost is trivial.

But it gets worse. The NEA also is very clever. A Senator once told me that it was difficult to vote against the bureaucracy because the “arts community” cleverly placed the wives of major donors on local arts councils. That made it difficult to vote against the NEA, though this Senator did say that making this tough vote would be worthwhile. Yes, there would be some short-term grousing by interest groups (and donor wives) if the agency actually was shut down, but that would quickly dissipate as people saw the arts were able to survive and thrive without sucking at the federal teat.

For the sake of the nation, let’s hope most lawmakers think this way.

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As I wrote yesterday (and have pontificated about on many occasions), the main problem with America’s healthcare system is that various government interventions (Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, tax code’s healthcare exclusion, etc) have created a system where people – for all intents and purposes – buy healthcare with other people’s money.

And as Milton Friedman wisely observed, that approach (known as “third-party payer”) undermines normal market incentives for lower costs. Indeed, it’s a green light for ever-higher costs, which is exactly what we see in the parts of the healthcare system where government programs or insurance companies pick up most of the tab.

For what it’s worth, I’m not overflowing with confidence that the new Obamacare-replacement proposal from Republicans will have much impact on the third-party payer crisis. And it probably doesn’t solve some of the Obamacare-specific warts in the system. If you want to get depressed about those issues, read what Michael Cannon, Philip Klein, and Christopher Jacobs have written about the new GOP plan.

But healthcare in America is also a fiscal issue. And if we’re just looking at the impact of the American Health Care Act on the burden of government spending and taxes, I’m a bit more cheerful.

The Congressional Budget Office released its official score on the impact of the legislation. Here’s the excerpt that warmed my heart.

Outlays would be reduced by $1.2 trillion over the period, and revenues would be reduced by $0.9 trillion. The largest savings would come from reductions in outlays for Medicaid and from the elimination of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) subsidies for nongroup health insurance. … parts of the legislation would repeal or delay many of the changes the ACA made to the Internal Revenue Code… Those with the largest budgetary effects include: • Repealing the surtax on certain high-income taxpayers’ net investment income; • Repealing the increase in the Hospital Insurance payroll tax rate for certain high-income taxpayers; • Repealing the annual fee on health insurance providers; and • Delaying when the excise tax imposed on some health insurance plans with high premiums would go into effect.

And fellow wonks will be interested in this table.

By the way, the “two cheers” in the title may be a bit too generous. After all, there should be full reform of Medicare and Medicaid. Though I suppose some of that can happen (at least Medicaid, hopefully) as part of the regular budget process.

It’s also unfortunate that Republicans are creating a new refundable tax credit (and when you see the term “refundable tax credit,” that generally is a sneaky euphemism for more government spending that is laundered through the tax code, sort of like the EITC) to replace some of the Obamacare subsidies that are being repealed.

So it’s far from ideal.

For those who want to see the glass as being half-full rather than half-empty, however, Ryan Ellis has a very upbeat assessment in a column for Forbes.

It’s a net spending cut of over $1.2 trillion and a net tax cut of nearly $900 billion over the next decade. …the score shows that the AHCA would be a large and permanent tax cut for families and employers….This should lower the tax revenue baseline considerably, perhaps even by half a percentage point of the economy.

I like starving the beast, so I agree this is a good thing.

And I also agree with Ryan that the resulting lower tax burden on dividends and capital gains is very positive. After all, double taxation is probably the most pernicious feature of the internal revenue code.

The most pro-growth tax cut in the bill is the elimination of the so-called “NIIT” or “net investment income tax.” It adds on a 3.8 percentage point surtax on savers and investors. By eliminating NIIT, the bill cuts the capital gains and dividends tax from 23.8 percent in 2017 to 20 percent in 2018 and beyond. …The contribution limit to HSAs is doubled, from nearly $7000 for families today to $14,000 starting in 2018.

But I’ll close with some sad news. If the legislation is approved, that probably means no more Obamacare-related humor. If this makes you sad, you can easily spend about 30 minutes enjoying Obamacare  cartoons, videos, and jokes by clicking here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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A couple of years ago, filled with disgust at the sleazy corruption of the federal Leviathan, I put forth a simple explanation for what happens in Washington, DC.

I call it the “First Theorem of Government,” and I think it accurately reflects the real purpose and operation of government. Except I probably should have added lobbyists and contractors. And it goes without saying (though I probably should have said it anyhow) that politicians are the main beneficiaries of this odious racket.

I think this theorem has stood the test of time. It works just as well when Republicans are in charge as it does when Democrats are in charge.

But it doesn’t describe everything.

For instance, Republicans have won landslide elections in recent years by promising that they will repeal Obamacare the moment they’re in charge. Well, now they control both Congress and the White House and their muscular rhetoric has magically transformed into anemic legislation.

This is very disappointing and perhaps I’ll share some of Michael Cannon’s work in future columns about the policy details, but today I want to focus on why GOP toughness has turned into mush.

In part, this is simply a reflection of the fact the rhetoric of politicians is always bolder than their legislation (I didn’t agree with 98 percent of what was said by Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, but he was correct that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”)

But that’s just a small part of the problem. The real issue is that it’s relatively easy for GOP politicians to battle against proposed handouts and it’s very difficult to battle against existing handouts. That’s because government goodies are like a drug. Recipients quickly get hooked and they will fight much harder to preserve handouts than they will to get them in the first place.

And that’s the basic insight of the “Second Theorem of Government.”

Here’s a recent interview on FBN. The topic is the Republican reluctance to fully repeal Obamacare. I only got two soundbites, and they both occur in the first half of the discussion, but you can see why I was motivated to put forth the new theorem.

Simply stated, I’m disappointed, but I’m more resigned than agitated because this development was so sadly predictable.

And here are a couple of follow-up observations. I guess we’ll call them corollaries to the theorem.

  1. You break it, you buy it – Government intervention had screwed up the system well before Obamacare was enacted, but people now blame the 2010 law (and the Democrats who voted for it) for everything that goes wrong with healthcare. Republicans fear that all the blame will shift to them if their “Repeal and Replace” legislation is adopted.
  2. Follow the money – What’s partly driving GOP timidity is their desire not to anger many of the interest groups – such as state governments, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, etc – who benefit from various Obamacare handouts. That’s what is motivating criticism for politicians such as Ohio’s John Kasich and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
  3. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – The “Cadillac Tax” is the one part of Obamacare that’s worth preserving because it will slowly cut back on the distorting tax preferences that lead to over-insurance and third-party payer. For what it’s worth, the GOP plan retains that provision, albeit postponed until 2025.
  4. The switch in time that saved…Obamacare – I’m still upset that Chief Justice John Roberts (aka, the reincarnation of the 1930s version of Justice Roberts) put politics above the Constitution by providing the decisive vote in the Supreme Court decision that upheld Obamacare. If the law had been blocked before the handouts began, we wouldn’t be in the current mess.

For these reasons (as well as other corollaries to my theorem), I’m not brimming with optimism that we’ll get real Obamacare repeal this year. Or even substantive Obamacare reform.

P.S. Now you know what I speculated many years ago that Obamacare would be a long-run victory for the left even though Democrats lost many elections because of it. I sometimes hate when I’m right.

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Once of the reasons that tax increases in Washington are such a bad idea (and one of the reasons why a value-added tax is an especially bad idea) is that the prospect of additional tax revenue kills any possibility of genuine entitlement reform. Simply stated, politicians won’t do the heavy lifting of fixing those programs if they think can use a tax hike to prop up the current system for a few more years.

However, if we don’t fix the entitlements, the United States faces a very grim fiscal future regardless of new revenue because the burden of government spending will be expanding faster than the growth of the private economy.

Indeed, tax hikes presumably will accelerate the problems by weakening economic performance, creating an even bigger gap between the growth of government spending and the growth of productive output. Sort of a double violation of my Golden Rule.

Well, the same thing is happening in Illinois.

That state is a fiscal disaster. Taxes already are high, government spending already is excessive, and promises of lavish future benefits for government bureaucrats have created a mountain of unfunded liabilities. To make matters worse, there’s a never-ending trickle of taxpayers fleeing to other states, thus making the long-run outlook even worse.

A column in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses this unfolding disaster.

…what about the state’s fiscal apocalypse, which is not only happening right now but has plunged Illinois into a bona fide financial disaster? …the state has amassed $11 billion in unpaid bills—predicted to climb to more than $27 billion by the end of 2019. Illinois is facing the worst pension crisis of any U.S. state, with unfunded obligations totaling $130 billion, according to the state’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. That amounts to about $10,000 in debt for each resident. …Illinois also had the lowest credit rating among the 50 states as of October, when Moody’s Investors Service downgraded it again… Given all this, it’s no surprise that people are leaving. In 2016 Illinois lost more residents than any other state—for the third consecutive year. A total of 37,508 people fled, leaving the state’s population at its lowest level in nearly a decade.

By the way, the net payers of tax are the ones leaving, not the net consumers of tax. And every time one of the geese with golden eggs decides to fly away, Illinois falls deeper into a hole.

I discussed this phenomenon in a column for The Hill.

…there are some very uncompetitive, high-tax states, such as Illinois, that are in deep trouble due to internal migration.Most people have focused on the overall population loss of 37,508 in Illinois, but the number that should worry state politicians is, on net, a staggering 114,144 people left for other states. Only New York (another high-tax state with a grim future) lost more people to internal migration.Of course, what really matters, at least from a fiscal perspective, is the type of person who leaves. Data from the internal revenue service shows that states like Illinois are losing people with above-average incomes. In other words, the net taxpayers are escaping.

And don’t forget that Illinois is increasingly uncompetitive compared to neighboring states.

Here’s a blurb from a Wall Street Journal editorial in January,

Nearby Kentucky passed a right-to-work law last week and Missouri is expected to take up similar legislation in coming weeks. …this would leave Illinois, a non-right-to-work state, as an island with undesirable labor laws surrounded by states including Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin that provide more worker choice and business flexibility.

I have some theoretical problems with right-to-work laws, but the WSJ is correct that private employers tend to avoid states where unions wield a lot of power.

Also, we can’t forget that the main city in Illinois has its own set of problems.

As discussed in an article for the American Thinker, Chicago adds crime and corruption to the mix.

Chicago has become the icon of bloody violence on its streets, but corruption also is part of its misery… Chicago’s city government is known for much more than just its one-sidedness.  From Mayor Richard J. Daley’s well known rackets of yesteryear to former U.S House representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. (who just last year completed his prison sentence after having pleaded guilty to multiple federal charges including fraud, conspiracy, wire fraud, criminal forfeiture, and more), the list of Democrats committing and getting caught committing fraud, taking bribes, running scams, and other malfeasance while in office is very long. …As reported by Gazette.com, “according to Illinois corruption researchers Dick Simpson and Thomas Gradel, more than 30 Chicago aldermen have been convicted of crimes since 1973, most of them on bribery and extortion charges. “More than 1,000 public officials and businessmen in Illinois have been convicted of public corruption since 1970, including imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But corruption among politicians on Chicago’s premier lawmaking body has been ‘particularly persistent’, the researchers wrote in an anti-corruption report.”

Gee, what a surprise. Politicians create big government in part so they have lots of goodies to distribute, and they then use those goodies to extort money from people.

Hmmm…, where have I seen that message before?

But let’s not get distracted. We’ve now established that Illinois is a giant mess. We also know that the state can only be saved if there is both short-run spending restraint and long-run spending restraint (to deal with unaffordable benefits promised to the state’s massive bureaucracy). Though we also know that the chances of getting those necessary reforms will evaporate if tax hikes are an option.

So is anybody surprised that the state’s supposedly anti-tax governor is getting seduced/pressured into throwing taxpayers under the bus?

The Wall Street Journal opines on this development.

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has been trying to pull the Land of Lincoln out of economic decline…, and it’s a losing battle. After two years without a state budget, Mr. Rauner is now bending as Democrats promise to hold the budget hostage if he doesn’t sign a tax increase. In his State of the State address last week, Mr. Rauner said he was open to “consider revenue increases” in conjunction with “job-creating changes” in pursuit of a budget deal. He endorsed negotiations underway with state lawmakers to craft a “grand bargain”…the speech was greeted with derision by the state’s Springfield mafia that assumes it now has the Governor where it wants him. …The deal now being crafted in the state Senate would increase the state’s flat income-tax rate to somewhere around 5% from the current 3.75%. …Democrats are still peddling that they can tax their way out of Illinois’s economic decline, while taxpayers are picking up and heading to neighboring states.

Incidentally, there was a temporary hike in the tax to 5 percent a few years ago. How did that work out?

…the years of an elevated income tax produced one of the country’s weakest state economic recoveries, with bond-rating declines in Chicago and staggering deficits statewide. …Senate President John Cullerton said the point of the temporary hike was to pay pensions, “pay off our debt [and] to have enough money to pay the interest on that debt.” But the roughly $31 billion it generated made hardly a dent. Since 2011 the unfunded pension liability in Illinois has grown by $47 billion, even as the tax hike was mostly spent on pensions.

Here’s the bottom line. Governor Rauner made a huge mistake by stating that he would “consider revenue increases.”

Illinois, after all, is not suffering from inadequate tax collections.

Moreover, now that Rauner has waved the white flag, there’s a near-zero chance that he’ll be able to get something in exchange such as a Colorado-style spending cap or much-need constitutional reform to control pension expenditures.

Instead, higher revenues will trigger even more wasteful outlays (as leftists in the state sometimes accidentally admit).

I guess there’s still a chance he’ll do what’s best for the state and reject tax hikes, but as of now it looks like Rauner will be the next winner of the Charlie Brown Award.

Oh, and he’ll also jeopardize his own political career. Which helps to explain why the GOP is known as the “stupid party.”

P.S. I don’t think it beats my examples from Greece and Japan, but Illinois at least can compete in the dumbest-regulation contest.

P.P.S. Illinois is a terrible state for gun rights, and it even persecutes people who use guns to fight crime. The only silver lining to that dark cloud is this amusing example of left-wing social science.

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While President Trump apparently intends to waste taxpayer money for more childcare subsidies and presumably is going to duck the critical issue of entitlement reform, there is some good news for advocates of limited government and fiscal responsibility. According a recent news report., he’s not a big fan of outlays for foreign aid.

The White House budget director confirmed Saturday that the Trump administration will propose “fairly dramatic reductions” in the U.S. foreign aid budget later this month. …news outlets reported earlier this week that the administration plans to propose to Congress cuts in the budgets for the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development by about one third. …The United States spends just over $50 billion annually on the State Department and USAID.

Trump’s skepticism of foreign aid is highly appropriate. Indeed, he’s probably being too soft on the budget for foreign aid.

Government-to-government handouts have a terrible track record. Indeed, the main impact of such transfers is to undermine good reform and enrich corrupt elites in poor nations.

Moreover, if the goal is to actually create prosperity in developing countries, there is no substitute for free markets and limited government.

Let’s look at some additional evidence about the harmful impact of aid.

We’ll start with a rather amazing admission from a 2016 study published by the International Monetary Fund.

Foreign aid is a sizable source of government financing for several developing countries and its allocation matters for the conduct of fiscal policy. This paper revisits fiscal effects of shifts in aid dependency in 59 developing countries from 1960 to 2010. …we show that upward shifts and downward shifts in aid dependency have asymmetric effects on the fiscal accounts. Large aid inflows undermine tax capacity and public investment while large reductions in aid inflows tend to keep recipients’ tax and expenditure ratios unchanged. …we find that the undesirable fiscal effects of aid are more pronounced in countries with low governance scores and low absorptive capacity, as well as those with IMF-supported programs.

Wow, I’m not a big fan of the IMF, but you have to give the authors credit for honesty. They admit that aid is especially harmful in nations that are also receiving IMF bailouts.

But the main takeaway is that foreign governments simply use foreign aid money as an excuse to raise and spend their own money. That outcome presumably should irk leftists. From my perspective, such nations have too much spending, regardless of whether it’s being financed by their own taxpayers or foreign taxpayers.

Instead, these nations should be copying the small-government policies that enabled western nations to move from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

Let’s consider a couple of real-world examples.

We’ll start in South Sudan, where aid has subsidized awful behavior. Ian Birrell explains in an article for CapX.

…the fledgling state stumbles from the savagery of civil war into the horror of famine. …sadly these events also illustrate another example of the dismal failure of Western aid policies. …our politicians would be wise to stop spouting their usual nonsense about saving the world’s poor and start considering the corrosion caused by the billions already poured in to this failed state, pursuing naive ideas about state building based on floods of cash. …Experts such as the academic Alex de Waal say “looting food aid was elevated to military strategy” by militia commanders who later controlled the country. Despite these activities, $1 billion a year was handed over in aid in the years before independence, rising to $1.4 billion following arrival as the 193rd nation represented at the UN. …An estimated $4 billion was missing “or simply put, stolen”… But still aid poured in, leading to public spending per capita more than three times the levels seen in neighbouring Kenya. …there was a fake ministry of finance to deal with gullible donors and well-meaning armies of advisers, while the real version carried on under the generals with its backdoor dealings. …For all the fine words and good intentions, the West has ended up assisting and empowering a callous kleptocracy – again.

The bottom line is that foreign aid enabled and subsidized an awful government doing awful things.

Now let’s look at another African jurisdiction, only this one has been neglected by the international community.

But as Negash Tekie explains in another article of CapX, benign neglect can be a positive thing.

Over the years, the West has spent many millions to help stabilise the Horn of Africa, and alleviate the grinding poverty of many of its residents. …In Somalia, meanwhile, the international community is still trying – as it has for decades – to build a functioning government. Yet despite massive amounts in aid, …there is little hope of either building resilient and inclusive state institutions. What a stark contrast there is with neighbouring Somaliland. …Somaliland is, admittedly, desperately poor… But it is, in a volatile region, a beacon of security and stability. …Somaliland…claimed its independence from Somalia in May 1991, amid the chaos of the civil war there. But international bodies, and the African Union, have refused to recognise it.

But this absence of recognition has been a blessing in disguise.

The result has been that, without international aid and support, Somaliland has had to fall back on its own resources. In contrast to other African nations, state-building programmes and public services have been entirely financed by domestic income, rather than being supported by international donors. …countries that are dependent on aid can afford to neglect tax collection, countries without it are forced to use taxation appropriately. In 1990-2000, the Somaliland ministry of finance reported that “95 per cent of the resource that finance the activities are locally mobilised, mostly through taxation”. Not only are taxes collected in a non-coercive manner… For example, in early 2000s the government attempted to increase taxes on the private sector and proposed a VAT rate of 30 per cent, but the business sector lobbied against it and the policy was reversed. …A number of aid experts have argued that heavy dependence on external assistance undermines democracy, creates a dependency culture, diminishes political accountability and makes the state more accountable to donors than its own citizens.Somaliland is an example that…the inhabitants of the Horn of Africa can still build functioning states. …Somaliland is a lesson to the world in how to achieve successful state-building without aid.

Somaliland is far from a success story, and the article acknowledges big problems with drought, Chinese influence, and other factors, but at least there are some positive developments.

The key lesson is that the absence of aid has a very sobering effect.

And you know I get a “thrill up my leg” when I read about a place that fights against the value-added tax.

So I’m crossing my fingers that Somaliland stays independent and begins to prosper.

Let’s close by sharing a startling confession by a former senior aid bureaucrat in the United Kingdom.

Foreign aid spending is “out of control” and the department responsible for it should be abolished, according to its own former minister of state. …Grant Shapps, who was second-in-command at the Department for International Development (DfID) until 14 months ago, attacked its “profoundly worrying” tendency to “shovel cash out of the door”. …Shapps, whose criticisms are unprecedented from a former insider, said he had “agonised” for more than a year about going public. …He described how, in the Foreign Office, he would protest to African dictators about their “denial of human rights and democratic values” but “then, with my DfID hat on, I would rifle through my red box [of ministerial papers] to find cheques for hundreds of millions of pounds payable to the same countries. …Money was thrown at wasteful multilateral aid providers, such as the European Union and the United Nations, to reach the required spending level.

Too bad we don’t have enough ethical bureaucrats to blow the whistle on similar examples of waste and corruption in America’s foreign-aid system (though at least we have two former officials who were in charge of the federal government’s asset-forfeiture office and now say it should be shut down).

P.S. Next time leftists want to make a satirical video attacking libertarianism, they should use Somaliland rather than Somalia.

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The tax-and-transfer welfare state is in deep trouble. I explained last year that the United States faces a very serious long-run challenge.

Many of our entitlement programs were created based on the assumption that we would always have an expanding population, as represented by a population pyramid. …however, we’ve seen major changes in demographic trends, including longer lifespans and falling birthrates. The combination of these two factors means that our population pyramid is slowly, but surely, turning into a population cylinder. …this looming shift in America’s population profile means massive amounts of red ink as the baby boom generation moves into full retirement.

In other words, in the absence of genuine entitlement reform, America will have a Greek-style fiscal mess at some point in the future. Or, as I wrote yesterday, maybe we should call it a Japan-style mess.

Demographic 2030Simply stated, we’re going to have too many people collecting benefits and too few people generating income.

The outlook is even worse in Europe. Indeed, the fiscal crisis has already started in many nations in Southern Europe. And the crisis will spread to many countries in Northern Europe. And it will hit Eastern Europe as well, notwithstanding some good economic reforms in that region.

Unfortunately, most politicians are reluctant to undertake the entitlement reforms that would avert this crisis.

So what’s their alternative solution? In many cases, they don’t have one. In other cases, they act as if higher tax burdens can solve the problem, even though that probably means even more people will be discouraged from productive lives and instead decide to ride in the wagon of government dependency (higher taxes also would enable even more spending, but that’s a separate story).

Another potential answer is sex. To be more specific, governments around the world are urging people to procreate more so that there will be additional future taxpayers to finance the welfare state.

I’m not kidding.

Let’s start with the new effort in Spain.

Europeans across the continent are having so many fewer babies that national populations from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean are skewing towards the older end of the spectrum, with not enough young, productive people to keep economies thriving and to look after the rest of the aging population. Spanish women have 1.3 children on average. In 2015, Spain’s death rate outstripped the birth rate… Edelmira Barreira Diz was appointed as “commissioner for the demographic challenge” last month.

I think “sex commissioner” would have been a better title. Heck, that probably would have enticed a certain former American president to apply for the position.

Here’s a chart from the story showing declining fertility rates.

There’s a similar effort for government-encouraged babies in Italy.

Italy is facing a dramatic demographic change, with increasingly fewer children being born. So the Health Ministry recently launched an ad campaign to remind people of Sept. 22 being “fertility day.” …another ad claiming that fertility was “a common good” — a comparison that reminded some of fascist propaganda from the 1920s which urged women to have more babies to support the nation. …As a social welfare state, Italy’s pensions system and economy relies on a certain number of younger people joining the workforce every year.

The Danish government also wants women to think they have an obligation to produce future taxpayers.

In Denmark, for instance, schoolchildren are now taught in class that they should have more babies. “…we just thought, maybe we should actually also tell them about how to get pregnant,” Marianne Lomholt, national director of Sex and Society, told the New York Times. …Denmark’s Education Ministry now has teachers talk not only about the dangers of sex and pregnancies, but also about their benefits.

Also in Denmark, private companies are jumping on this bandwagon (sexwagon?) of more sex as a solution to demographic-entitlement crisis.

Denmark has a sex problem. …not exactly a sex problem, per se. It’s more like a baby problem. …Denmark’s perennially low birth rate…has left people worried… “We are concerned. The fewer Danes means fewer people to support the aging population…” …can vacation sex save the Kingdom of Denmark? Spies thinks it can, so the company has sweetened the deal. According to its promotion, the company will give prizes to couples who get pregnant while on vacations purchased through them.

Given the grim demographic outlook in Japan, nobody should be surprised that the government there is agitating for more future taxpayers.

A comprehensive plan to reverse Japan’s crashing population numbers was unveiled on Thursday by a government task force… Shigeru Ishiba, minister in charge of overcoming population decline and reviving local economies, was more blunt. “Japan will die off” without proper countermeasures, he warned. …The strategy outlined in the government plan is to encourage young people to relocate to areas outside the major metropolitan regions by fostering jobs and economic growth in small local communities that are now in danger of simply disappearing for lack of inhabitants.

Huh?!? Japan’s repeated forays into Keynesian economics haven’t generated good results nationally, so I’m not holding my breath that this new campaign will be “fostering jobs and economic growth” in targeted communities.

For a final example, let’s shift to China, where a government that formerly forced women to have abortions is suddenly looking at ways to subsidize an extra child.

China is considering introducing birth rewards and subsidies to encourage people to have a second child… the country issued new guidelines in late 2015 allowing all parents to have two children amid growing concerns over the costs of supporting an aging population. …China began implementing its controversial “one-child policy” in the 1970s in order to limit population growth, but authorities are now concerned that the country’s dwindling workforce will not be able to support an increasingly aging population.

Since coerced redistribution isn’t nearly as odious as coerced abortion, I guess this is another sign of progress in China.

But I’m not sure that will be enough to produce enough future taxpayers for China. Or any other nation.

The only sustainable welfare state, given modern demographics, is no welfare state.

Or, to be more accurate, the right approach is to start with the default assumption that people are responsible for saving and investing to support themselves in retirement. There are lots of nations that now have systems of personal retirement accounts, and this puts them in much stronger position than nations that rely solely on tax-and-transfer entitlement schemes. Hong Kong is a good example, as are Chile and Australia.

By the way, countries with private social security systems have safety-net programs for destitute seniors, but that’s far more affordable than automatic payments to everyone in retirement.

P.S. On a related note, there’s a big debate in academic circles about whether the welfare state (specifically young-to-old redistribution) actually sows the seed of its own destruction by inducing lower fertility rates. Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review summarized some of the evidence for this hypothesis back in 2012.

A 2005 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by economists Michele Boldrin, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Larry E. Jones points out that “the size and timing of the growth in government pension systems” matches up nicely with fertility trends in the U.S. and Europe. They expanded on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and fertility fell on both sides, after World War II; and they expanded more in Europe, where fertility fell further. In their model, entitlements account for roughly half of the decline in fertility, and 60 percent of the difference between European and American fertility. When a pension system expands by 10 percent of GDP, the average number of children per woman drops by 0.7 to 1.6. “These findings are highly statistically significant and fairly robust to the inclusion of other possible explanatory variables.” A 2007 paper by Isaac Ehrlich and Jinyoung Kim, also for the NBER, reached similar conclusions, finding that pension programs explained a little under half of the decline in fertility rates, and a little more than half of the decline in marriage rates, in developed countries between 1965 and 1989. One implication of this finding is that pension programs have contributed to their own financial woes by suppressing fertility.

Some researchers have concluded that other types of redistribution spending can boost fertility, though other scholars are more skeptical.

I haven’t studied this literature on subsidized babies enough to have a strong opinion.

For what it’s worth, I suspect the government can provide enough handouts to induce motherhood (heck, one of the motives for the welfare reform that was adopted during Bill Clinton’s presidency was a concern that the old system was encouraging women to have children out of wedlock).

But I’m very doubtful that such policies would fix the demographic/entitlement crisis that threatens most nations. In part, because I’m skeptical about the ability of governments to cause large shifts in fertility, but also because recreating a population pyramid only works if the additional children wind up being productive workers in the private sector.

In other words, the goal isn’t really a population pyramid as much as it’s a shift in the ratio of producers versus dependents in a nation.

As such, if many of the babies induced by handouts come from mothers that rely on welfare, and if those children are less likely to grow up to be net payers of tax rather than net consumers of tax, then baby subsidies are not going to solve the problem.

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When I warn about the fiscal and economic consequences of America’s poorly designed entitlement programs (as well as the impact of demographic changes), I regularly suggest that the United States is on a path to become Greece.

Because of Greece’s horrible economy, this link has obvious rhetorical appeal.

But there’s another nation that may be a more accurate “role model” of America’s future. This other country, like the United States, is big, relatively rich, and has its own currency.

For these and other reasons, in an article for The Hill, I suggest that Japan is the nation that may offer the most relevant warning signs. I explain first that Japan shows the failure of Keynesian economics.

…ever since a property bubble burst in the late 1980s, Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums, and its politicians deserve much of the blame. They’ve engaged in repeated binges of so-called Keynesian stimulus. But running up the national credit card hasn’t worked any better in Japan than it did for President Barack Obama. Instead of economic rejuvenation, Japan is now saddled with record levels of debt.

In other words, Japan already is a basket case and may be the next Greece. And all this foolish policy has been cheered on by the IMF.

I then highlight how Japan shows why a value-added tax is a huge mistake.

Japan’s politicians also decided to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on the nation. As so often happens when a VAT gets adopted, it turns into a money machine, as legislators start ratcheting the rate higher and higher. That happened in Europe back in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s happening in Japan today.

And regular readers know my paranoid fear of the VAT taking hold in the United States.

But here’s the main lesson in the column.

The combination of demographic changes and redistribution programs is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

…the biggest economic threat to the country is the way Japan’s welfare state interacts with demographic changes. It’s not that the welfare state is enormous, particularly compared with European nations, but the system is becoming an ever-increasing burden because the Japanese people are living longer and having fewer children. …America faces some of the same problems. …if we don’t reform our entitlement programs, it’s just a matter of time before we also have a fiscal crisis.

To be sure, as I note in the article, Japan’s demographic outlook is worse. And that nation’s hostility to any immigration (even from high-skilled people) means that Japan can’t compensate (as America has to some degree) for low birth rates by expanding its population.

Indeed, the demographic situation in Japan is so grim that social scientists have actually estimated the date on which the Japanese people become extinct.

Mark August 16, 3766 on your calendar. According to…researchers at Tohoku University, that’s the date Japan’s population will dwindle to one. For 25 years, the country has had falling fertility rates, coinciding with widespread aging. The worrisome trend has now reached a critical mass known as a “demographic time bomb.” When that happens, a vicious cycle of low spending and low fertility can cause entire generations to shrink — or disappear completely.

Though I guess none of us will know whether this prediction is true unless we live another 1750 years. But it doesn’t matter if the estimate is perfect. Japan’s demographic outlook is very grim.

By the way, the problem of aging populations and misguided entitlements exists in almost every developed nation.

But I mentioned in the article for The Hill that there are two exceptions. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low birthrates and aging populations. But neither jurisdiction faces a fiscal crisis for the simple reason that people largely are responsible for saving for their own retirement.

And that, of course, is the main lesson. The United States desperately needs genuine entitlement reform. While I’m not overflowing with optimism about Trump’s view on these issues, hope springs eternal.

P.S. In yesterday’s column about Germany, I listed bizarre policies in Germany in the postscripts. My favorite example from Japan is the regulation of coffee enemas. And the Japanese government has even proven incompetent at giving away money.

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